A Note on Mahdist Flags
By Doug Johnson, Drawings by Greg Rose
Webified by Rob Mahoney
Flags in the Mahdiyya were used as emblems of rank, markers for army organization and for propaganda. They represented more than regimental flags of European armies, and followed a long tradition of the use of flags in Muslim armies, especially in the Muslim jihads of 19th Century Africa.
Their use as marks of rank and army organization were closely linked. In the early days of the Mahdist revolt, the Mahdi conferred flags on those who were his leading amirs and supporters. He also sent flags to regional and tribal leaders who joined his movement as signs that they were his principal agents in their territory who were to organize and lead armies in his name. The flag represented adherence to the Mahdist cause, recognition from the Mahdi as a legitimate agent, promotion into the hierarchy of Mahdist military commanders and the focus around which a local Mahdist army was gathered. In this way flags in the Mahdiyya followed very closely the use of flags in the beginning of the jihad of the Shehu Usuman dan Fodio in the Western Sudan at the beginning of the 19th Century. (Smaldone, pp. 25-26).
As the Mahdist became more organized, the word "flag" (rayya) came mean a division of troops or a body of troops under a commander (Bedri, p. 51). At the largest division of organization the rayya was one of the three divisions of the Mahdist army. The Black Flag division of the Kahlifa Abdullahi (al-Rayya al-Zarqa) was composed mostly of the western Baggara of Dar Fur and Kordofan, and came include most of the jihadiyya (riflemen) and artillery. The Red Flag division of the Khalifa Muhammad al-Sharif (al-Rayya al-Hamra) contained most of the riverine peoples north of Khartoum, including the Mahdi's own tribe, the Danaqla. The Green Flag division of the Khalifa Ali was Hilu (al-Rayya al-Khadra) was composed of the peoples of the Gezira, between the Blue and White Niles south of Khartoum where the Khalifa Ali himself came from (Holt, 1970, p. 120). The rayya never came t mean a fixed number of men and the size of these divisions fluctuated greatly. Originally the division of the Khalifa al-Sharif was the largest, but it declined during the rule of the Khalifa Abdullahi when the Black Flag became the dominant division. At the battle of Omdurman, the Black Flag Division numbered 14,448, the Green Flag numbered 5,511, and the Red Flag numbered 81 (SIR No. 60, p. 44).
The only consistent muster of the three main divisions were the amirs attached to them. These amirs were often sent to the provinces where they commanded small armies of their own, or were put in command of certain special arms of the Mahdist army (see Reid, p. 308ff). Thus Hamdam Abu Anja, an amir of the Black Flag, was commander of all of the jihadiyya, though each division had a detachment of jihadiyya of their own, as did most provincial armies. Abu Anja was also the commander of the army that invaded Abysinnia, the largest army the Mahdists ever fielded. Abdal Rahman al-Nujumi was an amir of the Red Flag, and as such commanded the largest contingents at the battle of Shaykan and the siege of Khartoum. He was also commander of the northern frontier and leader of the invasion of Egypt, in which troops that did not belong to Red Flag were involved.
New divisions could be raised with their own flags for their own commanders. When the Mulazimiyya replaced the jihadiyya as the main body of riflemen, the Khalifa's son Uthman Shaykh al-Din was made its commander and given his own flag. Uthman Diqna never seemed attached to any one of the main divisions, but had his own army under his own flag. Mahmud was Ahmad, formerly governor of the West and later commander of the troops at Atbara, also never seemed permanently attached to any one of the central divisions and his troops seem to have been organized under his own flag. As he was a relative of the Khalifa Abdullahi and most of his troops came from the west, there might have been a technical subordination to the Black Flag.
Within the main divisions and within the main armies each amir had his own flag. These included the major amirs like Wad al-Nujumi, Abu Anja, Uthman Azraq, Zaki Taml, etc., but also included many minor amirs. Again the possession of a flag indicated no fixed number, merely that the amir who had one was authorized to command within the army. Within the larger organization, the flags of minor amirs need not have been associated with a personality, but with a certain position within the army. Thus when, during the siege of Khartoum Abdallah ar-Nur, one of Wad al-Nujumi's chief subordinates, was killed, Wad al-Nujumi gave the flag to his brother Makin al-Nur when he promoted him to take Abdallah's place. (Bedri, p. 25).
On reviews in Omdurman, and when troops were mustered to be sent out on campaign, they were gathered around the flags of their principal commanders or the flag of the division they belonged to. (Wingate, p. 473).
Flags were instruments of propaganda both in the inscriptions they bore and sometimes in their colors. Almost all flags carried the proclamation that the Mahdi was the successor to Muhammad, in addition the standard Muslim creed. (I know of only two flags that omit the Mahdi's name: the Mahdi's own flag, and the flag of Mahmud wad Ahmad which bears only the names of Allah and Muhammad). The Khalifa Abdullahi seems to have had the names of Muslim saints popular in Egypt placed on some flags in anticipation of the invasion of Egypt. The inclusion of these saint's names seems aimed at winning over the followers of their brotherhoods. (Holt, 1955; pp. 205-206). Small flags, bearing the Mahdist creed were often planted in Egyptian soil by small raiding bands from the frontier who set out specifically to plant the flags in the midst of the Egyptian population. (Bedri, p. 47). In this was they seem to have been used as propaganda leaflets, but these flags were not used in army organization.
The colors of the flag often bore some significance as well. The Mahdi's own flag was green, which directly associated him with the Prophet Muhammad, as green was the color of his first flag. Green was also the color of peace, and this seems to be its main significance as the color of Khalifa Ali, who was chosen as a Khalifa because he was a pious man of peace. (Henderson, p. 88). Black has been the Muslim color of revolution since the days of the Abbasid revolution, and this may be why it was chosen as the color of the Khalifa Abdullahi's flag. But these colors have also been associated with the brotherhoods in Egypt that venerate certain saints, and there is some evidence that the Khalifa Abdullahi wished to capitalize on the associations of Black, Red, Green and White flags with certain saints for his invasion of Egypt. (Holt, 1955; p. 205). Association with these particular saints does not seem to have lasted throughout the Mahdiyya, nor were the associations very strong in the Sudan. There seems to have been no regulation concerning the colors of flags of subordinate amirs within the major divisions and larger armies.
THE CONSTRUCTION OF THE FLAGS
Mahdist flags were sewn together from many different pieces of cloth, the obverse, reverse, borders and letters were often of different colors. The obverse and reverse sides were sewn together first. The obverse was usually white, but could also be black, blue, green, red or yellow. The reverse could be the same color as the front, but was usually white. It also remained blank and rarely had any borders or inscriptions sewn on it.
The borders were then sewn on the front. The most usual pattern of borders is shown in the figure below. The borders could all be of the same color. If not, the top and bottom were usually of the same color, and the right and left sides were of a different color. The thin stripes separating the four lines of inscription were of the same color as the right and left borders. The most frequent border around a colored background was white, but other colors were used. The most frequent borders around a white background were blue and red, but the border could also be yellow, green or even white.
A cloth sheath, usually white, was sewn into the right border. Through this the flagstaff was passed when the flag was carried into battle.
Inscriptions on early flags sometimes had local variations to the standard creed, including a name of a saint, or even a local commander on the last line. This seems to have been rare, appearing on a few locally made flags that had not been conferred by the Mahdi.
The standard inscription was the Muslim creed on the first three lines and the declaration of the Mahdi on the bottom line. They usually read:
As a "Tailor of Flags" was set up in Omdurman shortly after the fall of Khartoum, and regulations were issued concerning the inscription of flags, flags became standard. The inscription followed the above pattern, but the inscriptions could be crowded in on each other, especially if only three lines of writing were used instead of four. (see Figure D).
There were some standard types of lettering used, an example of one of the most common is shown below. Other types of standard lettering appear in Figures C and E. Figure A shows a rare type of ornate lettering.
The most common colors of letters on a white background were green and red, but black, blue and yellow are among those colors also used. Usually the color of the letters would be uniform on each line, but sometimes one or two words in a line would be in a different color from the rest. Sometimes too, all but one line would be in one color, such as red, with a single line (usually the third line) being in a different color, such as green. The diacritical dots beneath and above some letters were frequently a different color from the letter itself. The most frequent combinations seem to have been green dots for red letters and black or light brown dots for blue letters. White letters with blue dots were usually sewn on colored backgrounds, but white letters could also be sewn on the white background.
The flags illustrated in the figures are all from the sections within the armies at Omdurman or Atbara. Figures A, B, E and F are on display at the Khalifa's House in Omdurman. Figures C and D are at Blair Atholl castle in Scotland.
Figures A, C and D show very plain borders. Figure E shows a rather more ornate border than usually found. Figures B and F are rare in that they don't follow the standard pattern at all. In Figure B, the creed "There is no god but God Muhammad is the Apostle of God" is worked out in white letters around the central inscription, which reads "Al-Mahdi naura ainihî", "May (God) lighten (enlighten) the Mahdi's eye."
Figure F is nearest to the normal creed, but separated out in five lines which read:
"Lâ illâh ilâ" (there is no god butÉ)
"allâh Muhammad" (God, MuhammadÉ)
"Ahmad al-Mahdi" (Ahmad al-Mahdi isÉ)
"Kahlîfa rasûl allâh" (the Successor of the Apostle of God)
"Salâm alaihi" (Peace be upon him)
Flag captured at Omdurman, in the Khalifa's House, Omdurman, The Sudan. This flag, measuring 41/2' x 3' has a standard, though abbreviated inscription, in more ornate lettering than most. It reads: "In the name of God, the Compassionate, the Merciful; There is no god but God and Muhammad is the Prophet of God; Muhammad al-Mahdi is the Successor of the Prophet of God." The letters are black on a white background. The border is faded blue, except the section at the top left and bottom right, which are red.
Flag captured at Omdurman, in the Khalifa's House, Omdurman, The Sudan. This is a most interesting flag, measuring approximately 4' x 3', as it does not have he usual inscriptions and carries the same design on both sides. A white background with a light green border, red designs in the center, and white lettering. The five green dots at the bottom of the flag appear at the top on the reverse, and green design at the top appears on the bottom on the reverse side.
The white letters on the red rectangle in the center read: "Al-Mahdi naura ainihî" = "May (God) lighten (enlighten) the Mahdi's eye."
There are white letters embroidered insight the red ovals on each side of the central inscription. They read:
Top right: lâ 'allâh
Bottom right: 'ilâ 'allâh
Bottom left: Muhammad
Top left: rasûlu 'allâhi
Flag captured at Atbara or Omdurman at Blair Atholl, Scotland. A standard flag (there are two of this identical pattern on display), blue background, white border and lettering. Four lines of writing reading: "O God, O Compassionate One, O Merciful One; O Living One, O Subsisting One, O Lord of Majesty and Honor; There is no god but God and Muhammad is the Prophet of God; Muhammad al-Mahdi is the Successor to the Prophet of God."
Flag captured at Atbara, at Blair Atholl, A reddish-brown background with white letters and a faded blue or green border. Three lines of writing reading: "O God, O Compassionate One, O Merciful One, O Living One, O Subsisting One. O Lord of; Majesty and Honor, There is no god but God and Muhammad is the Prophet; of God, Muhammad al-Mahdi is the Successor of the Prophet of God." The normal formulae are run into each other, rather than separated on four lines of writing.
Flag captured at Omdurman, c. 4' x 3', Khalifa's House, Omdurman, The Sudan. Four lines of inscriptions in multi-colors:
1st line: Black, green and red letters: "O God, O Compassionate One, O Merciful One"
2nd line: Black and red letters: "O Living One, O Subsisting One, O Lord of Majesty and Honor"
3rd line: White and Red letters: "There is no god but God and Muhammad is the Prophet of God"
4th line: Red and Black Letters: "Al-Mahdi is the Successor (Khalifa) of the Prophet of God"
Flag captured at Omdurman, c 5' by 3'. Khalifa's House, Omdurman, The Sudan. Note: This flag was most likely attached to its flagstaff at the top, so that the lettering would in fact be read sideways.
1st line: "There is no god but"
2nd line: "God, Muhammad"
3rd line: "Ahmad al-Mahdi"
4th line: "Is the Successor (Khalifa) to the Prophet of God"
5th line: "Peace be upon Him (Salâm alaihi)
EXAMPLE OF STANDARD LETTERING USED ON FLAGS
A PARTIAL LIST OF MAHDIST FLAGS ON DISPLAY
Blair Atholl: About a half dozen flags captured at Atbara and Omdurman.
Black Watch Museum, Perth, Scotland: One large blue flag, captured at Omdurman and presented to the Black Watch.
Durham University, Sudan Archive: Five flags: 2 from Atbara, 1 from Omdurman, 1 formerly belonging to Saltine and one formerly belonging to Wingate; all in boxes in the archive.
Khalifa's House, Omdurman, The Sudan: Mohammed's Flag, Zaki Uthman's Flag, flag from the Bahr al-Ghazal, c. 1897; several flags captured at Omdurman.
National Army Museum, Chelsea, U.K.: 3 flags from 1898 (one from Shaykh al-Din's army); 2 flags from the Mahdi's tomb; 2 flags from Tofrel, 1885; 1 flag from the Bayuda desert, 1885; 4 misc. flags. These are not on display but are contained in Colour Store 6.
National Museum, Khartoum, The Sudan: Uthman Diqna's flag, captured 1885.
Queens Own Highlanders Museum, Ft. George, Iverness. Flags, (furled), captured at Ginnis, Kosheh, Toski, Omdurman and Atbara; the Mahdi's flag, captured by the IXth Sudanese at Umm Diwaykarab, 1889, when the Khalifa was killed.
Royal Green Jackets Museum, Winchester, Hants.: six Omdurman flags.
Swiss Cottage, Osbourne House, Isle of Wight, U.K.: The flag of Uthman Arzaq, captured at Rika, 1896.
13th Light Infantry Regimental Museum, Taunton, Somerset: Flag captured at Abu Klea.
FLAGS ILLUSTRATED IN BOOKS ON THE SUDAN
Brooks-Shepherd, G., Between Two Flags, the Life of Baron Sir Rudolf von Slatin Pasha, 1972. Photo No. 11; crude sketch of a flag captured at McNeill's Zeriba; mislabeled "The Mahdi's Banner, and shown upside down.
Galloway, W., The Battle of Tofrek, London, 1887, Plate IV, with a detailed description on page xlv, of a flag captured in the Eastern Sudan, 1885. Clear detail.
Neufeld, K., A Prisoner of the Khaleefa, 1899; photo of the Khalifa Sharif's red flag.
It should be noted that two flags of the design of figure C are on display at Blair Castle, and other duplicate flags are also on display there. Flags of the same design may have been used to indicate subdivisions of the same unit. None of the flags pictured here were attributed to any specific commander or division. The Omdurman flags are most likely to have come from the Black Flag division, or the divisions of the Green Flag and Uthman Azraq.